Pop culture has become a major force in what artists create, whether for commerce or craft. Film, music, acting, and even politics draw from vivid or hazy memories of our favorite TV shows, celebrity gossip, live concerts and comic books. I have been attempting to isolate the media touchstones by increments, where the culture and politics and technology all sort of represent a particular “feel.” A lot bleeds together and generalities are necessary but here’s the best I can do. This is heavy on the boomer scale and this is why. I always consider the late eighties to be the start of the “age of irony.” Simply put, creators of mass media drew upon the previous thirty years for inspiration in a much more overt fashion. Creators grew up WITH television, which in turn increases awareness of film and music and the political circus. I start with 1957. By then, television was in most homes and movies became something you did on a night out rather than the main source of entertainment. In 1957, movies were mostly represented by a sprawling 16:9 ratio leaving TV to the standard 4:5 format. And color film was the norm at the cinema while the quality of the video increased substantially—no more kinescope and certainly less live feeds. Music became intertwined with TV and film culminating in the ultimate MTV movie mashups of the mid eighties. Broadway show tune LP’s gave way to film theme soundtracks.
A couple of things happened in the late 80’s that provides a good demarcation for my purposes here:
Fox—a fourth network who’s first hit was “Married with Children” a parody of sitcoms past.
Cable News—News was officially entertainment and prime time competition what with Larry King leading the pack.
Premium TV – HBO and Showtime matured from lasciviousness to a new “golden age” and films were now broadcast uncut in the living room, leaving the “event” movie going to popcorn at home.
Videotapes – Again, home box office.
“Adult” programming – For thirty years, permissiveness of cable and cinema has now permeated to broadcast television (now represented by a billion stations). Believe it or not, there was a “specialness” to a raw moment of dialogue or explicitness that made theatergoing an experience unto itself. Now, after decades of normalization, society’s mores and language is informed more by binge worthy water cooler programming than the other way around.
“Seinfeld” effect – Once again, irony. A show about nothing becoming a comedy touchstone in 1990 represents nihilism of observational narrative. While brilliant in it’s own right, characters became callous by nature as the creators wanted to mimic the successful sensibility of detachment.
HBO Sunday effect – With the blockbuster night of Sopranos, Sex and the City, and Curb Your Enthusiasm the line between TV and film blurred even more. Family hour was no longer counted upon.
Tarantino effect – Whereas Quentin is masterful and genuine in his appropriation of beloved movie and TV touchstones, filmmakers and programmers to the point of retro fatigue have emulated his enthusiasm.
Reality TV in the White House
So from 1987 to 2017, I can count less than twenty film and television milestones that really grab me. I’ve missed a lot—who has time to see the multitudes among the voluminous viewing options and trillions of new shows each month. Just reading the descriptions, everything seems derivative from something else. And the derivation is located smack dab in the previous thirty years. Let’s try this:
Kennedy was king. The Eisenhower years were still influencing the “whitewash” of media—saccharine sitcoms for instance. But there was a subversive element in films and the quality (original golden age) television dramas represented by the new Beatnik generation (parodied in “Dobie Gillis” and captured by seminal works of John Casavettes). Robert Drew brought cinema verite to politics as Camelot allowed DC and Hollywood to finally consummate a relationship. The infamous Nixon/Kennedy debate cemented the marriage. Elvis was the King of the forbidden in music and film. Country was growing out. Ricky Nelson was growing up. This was the “Mad Men” era represented by “The Apartment” and Bob Newhart’s record-breaking button down comedy. Mid-century was the norm; The Jetsons informed the future. Crisp and clear black and white images: the gothic mirth of Psycho and Baby Jane; the televised wit of Andy Griffith and Dick Van Dyke; the earnest photography of Perry Mason, Twelve Angry Men and pretty much any Preminger film. Dell paperbacks and comics created a pulp extravaganza only heightened by a subcultural sleaze in the new availability of two-reel exploitation in the coming Russ Meyers revolution. Limited animation was now the go-to thanks to Hanna-Barbera’s menagerie of commercial hits and the corresponding ad agency design minimalism. Paddy Chayefsky was the voice of the times. These Six years smell like the attic and sound like a smoky jazz beat.
How did these post-assassination years deal with a moral confusion, a national consensus of hopelessness? Images of war in the living rooms? Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy joining JFK in senseless violent ends? An era of upheaval as the LBJ’s New Deal inseminates the Southern Strategy and emboldens Civil Rights? And culminates in Helter Skelter? Well, Austin Powers can answer that. While Stanley Kubrick was pushing the envelope of doom and anxiety:--sexually (Lolita); politically (Dr. Strangelove) and prophetically (2001)—most studio fare consisted of 70 mm extravaganzas. Historical flops like Cleopatra, which was only successful in crowning the first Hollywood royal couple. Vivid and bright mega-comedies from Blake Edwards and other Mad Mad Worlds merged slapstick with day-glow imagery. James Bond was the rage bringing vacant sexiness to an emerging violent cinema rooted in subconscious fears. Bond was bound for TV, as spy shows became the trend. TV basked in escapism whether it is rural shenanigans and visual entendres (see the denizens of Hooterville) or the fantastical elements Screen Gems “Bewitched” and “Jeannie.” Is it any wonder that Gene Roddenberry provided the most though-provoking television in another world via the USS Enterprise? And Mr. Powers was definitely hip to the new mod sensibilities. The Beatles took the world by storm—with Dylan and the Rolling Stones—changing the musical landscape forever. Those sensibilities were reflected in film thanks to the new Corman crowd (Fonda and Nicholson) who brought psychedelic a to the big screen and the small screen (remember “The Monkees?”). Peter Sellers—in all his divine schizophrenic madness was figurehead of cinematic acid trips. Speaking of the big screen, the French New Wave of the past time period was now reflected in American film thanks to Warren Beatty’s perseverance (“Bonnie and Clyde”). Mike Nichols shared his voice with Simon and Garfunkel to create the new modern masterpiece of youthful cynicism. Back on TV, Fred Silverman started the media manipulation of tots by spearheading the licensing of comic book superheroes to Saturday Morning—selling cereal and Ideal Toys to kids consuming the soon-to-be vilified ultra-violence of Jonny Quest and friends.
The turning point here was the year the Manson murders occurred (post Rosemary’s Baby…Pulanski’s involvement in both) along with Midnight Cowboy becoming the first X-rated feature to win the Best Picture Oscar and the premiere of “The Brady Bunch.” This period was one of complete despair and confusion. The colorful mod culture morphed into Woodstock: dirty, naked unshaven “hippies.” Civil rights laws were now in full force and activism became thoughtful (if somewhat “immoral”) but also, highly violent in spurts. Peter Boyle’s “Joe” (the darkest id of the era’s lovable anti-hero Archie Bunker) represented the soft-core, utterly grimy feel of early 70’s cinema: Hackman’s antihero Popeye Doyle; Depalma’s bitter satires; Scorsese’s birth of blood-splattered urbanity; and Satan speaking through a crucifix defiling waif. Coppolla’s masterpiece “The Godfather” revived the cinema blockbuster a couple of years before the Spielberg/Lucas tent pole phenomenon. Woody Allen and Mel Brooks alternately shared the title of King of Farce. But TV ruled. It could be argued (and I often do) that this period represented the most challenging and intelligent entertainment in BOTH TV and film. Whereas most of the theaters basically involved “adult” entertainment—corrupt politics, bold Blaxploitation, horror both ultra bloody and psychologically damaging, and crudely produced sex comedies---the boob tube offered the politically incorrect satires of Norman Lear and the human sitcoms from Mary Tyler Moore’s new empire. Along with the TV version of Altman’s “MASH,” CBS’s Tiffany lineup on Saturday nights provides a template for the finest in broadcast television. ABC and NBC still traded on Day-Glo light romcom laugh track material. Fred Silverman, the chief of programming for CBS—he who tore down the trees of rural cornpone—was bearing the fruit of his earlier inspiration, Scooby Doo. Along with the Archies, Fat Albert and Josie and the Pussycats, Saturday Morning found a winning formula with mystery solving rock bands. The characters represented a benign version of the counterculture racially diverse society that was being co-opted by corporations to exploit into advertising tools. And while Peggy Charron was fighting violence on kid’s shows, her organization did nothing to fight the influence of psychedelic drugs as depicted on the Krofft puppet shows. Speaking of puppets, a need for educational children’s programming led to the PBS forming the Children’s Television Network bring “Sesame Street” and Muppets to the fore…once again giving youngsters a fresh new take on society—not too unlike the urban cinema mentioned earlier. And much like the commune, music was sort of hazy and insightful: Harry Chapin’s haunting ballads, Carole King’s beautiful melodies; The Carpenter’s depressing/happy musings. The Beatles were each doing their own things—creating future Muzak. And everything represented raw reality and possible hope. It was the era of Watergate. The hangover of the Sixties. Today’s society is at the same point today.
By now it’s time to party. Colonial grunge gave way to the flairiest of polyester and perms. Porn ‘staches were in as Debbie did Dallas and Jack Tripper ogled Crissy with mainstream lasciviousness. Although short-lived, the cocaine-infused Studio 54 ethos swarmed the media landscape. The Bee gee’s and ELO with the disco craze. Hair metal was permeating the youth culture what with Kiss and Cooper. Pop was populated with 50’s nostalgia with Sha Na Na, Fonzie and the hit musical Grease. This was clearly John Travolta’s coming out with his triple representation of the above tropes with Vinnie Barbarino, Saturday Night Fever, and Grease. Even his Urban Cowboy would usher in country music and Gilly-land to the mainstream after the previous decade found it meshing with hippie-culture ala Willie. The public was tired of politics—assassinations and Vietnam and Watergate were the past. So the peanut farmer from Georgia represented a Washington DC at the lowest ebb of beltway scrutiny. It didn’t take long for uber-programmer to morph from CBS’s arbiter of quality to ABC’s t & a titillation: “Charlies Angels” and the resulting Farrah phenomenon; Battle of the Network Stars; Three’s Company and Soap brought the bedroom to sitcoms. While TV was king, the cinema became more of a slumming night out. Some of the best schlock was created in this era with Roger Corman’s subversive cult classics being born. Quality cinema was relegated to Oscar telecasts and quiet conversations with an occasional breakout (“Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Network,” “Shampoo”) usually digested as a network edited for television movie of the week. Woody Allen was getting serious. And someone had to because the summer blockbuster mentality arrived with Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” and George Lucas’s “Star Wars.” Marvel and DC comics really started doing character mash-ups now and the legends were being deconstructed more than ever before. Saturday morning and kitsch still were home to the superheroes but the big-screen Superman started the comic book to celluloid invasion. And probably the longest-lasting pop culture phenomenon was born during this period: Lorne Michael’s Saturday Night Live. Belushi, Akroyd, Chase, Murray, Curtin, and Radner joined their Canadian Second City compatriots Candy, Short, O’Hara, Levy, Thomas, Moranis, Ramis and Martin in taking satire to all new levels. Whether it be the new comedy crudity of the frat-ball slob comedies (Animal House, Meatballs and Caddyshack), the biting and offbeat commentary inspired by the National Lampoon brand and Albert Brooks, or the drug-fueled content now permeating the kids next door (Cheech and Chong: blatant; Steve Martin: kinda sorta implied)…the icons of comedy would be forever changed from the cue card shtick of Bob Hope.
Ushering in my final segment of nostalgia is the summer release of Raiders of the Lost Ark. After that life-altering experience, the cinematic experience involved searching for that incredible big-screen knockout that combined pre-CGI action and effects, wry humor, romance and minimum bloody shocks. And they were found: Wrath of Khan, Poltergeist, ET, American Werewolf in London, Cat People, Gremlins and Temple of Doom. Box office bonanzas were found in the new in your face Reagan-era machismo courtesy of Stallone and the now emboldened Schwartz egger. Rambo, Rocky and Dirty Harry replaced the feel-good limp-wristed lineup of socially damaged anti-heroes. The National Lampoon crowd now ruled comedy.Landis, Reitman, Ramis…casting retired SNLers while Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy were dominating the cultural zeitgeist. Another Lampooner found his voice now: John Hughes. His sardonic, hysterical and heartfelt odes to youth gave an unintentional birth to an emo culture. And in doing so also put the capstone on melding pop music soundtracks with film. And a lot of that had to do with MTV. It was during this time that the most popular videos of all time, by now quaint and archaic were created along with new careers. There were one-hit wonders and a synth-beat ethic that breeds warmth through familiarity rather than social import. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Murphy’s hit single both reflect this hybrid of moviemakers and music biz. “We Are the World” brought all of them together. Watching that video will give you a quick course in the music icons of the time. Except two: Madonna and Prince. Her bad girl persona was permeating all discussion and his “Purple Rain” captured audiences both in vinyl and celluloid. And while Spielberg’s suburban fantasies dominated theaters, there was a very strong strain of urbanity. The geniuses of 70s cinema were providing a more glossed up studio product but no less brilliant (Lumet, Pollack, Depalma) but the low-budget schlock became more perverse, more grimy and more sick. Friday the 13th franchise would rule the gore porn crowd. These would end up being the best renters at video shops, now another touchstone of change. And as cheaply made as these were it wouldn’t be a decade before the slimy genre would go mainstream. The urbanity would extend to TV. Third wheel NBC would now be number one thanks to the dark humor of Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues), sexual tempo of Sam and Diane, and ironically the resurgence of “family TV” with Bill Cosby. David Letterman’s new hazy late night talk show was the perfect capstone for the now late-night denizens of a burgeoning cynical party era as a Lorne-less SNL was losing audience members (save Murphy, again). Sitcoms were still re-inventing seventies stars what with Newhart and the Golden Girls adding an audience-pleasing unreality to the scripts that only complemented the artificiality of the videotaped family dreck of the now-saturated mullet-haired comedies. Even Saturday Morning was now fully invested in creating toys and fast food personas—the Smurfication, if you will of kid’s shows. The emergence of Pee Wee Herman (even Pryor) would signal the future of adult-friendly kiddie shows that would lend themselves to the future of multi-platform viewing. Michael J. Fox created a character in Family Ties, which speaks volumes on the politics of the time: a young Wall Street-loving conservative, all alone in his views among his hippie family. But that yuppie caricature—represented in the burgeoning milieu of Brett Easton Ellis—combined with the Vietnam vets getting revenge on an unwelcoming American (liberal) beaurocracy represents the moral confusion that the previous eras planted the seeds of. One year later Michael Douglas would win an Oscar for uttering, “Greed is Good” as Iran-Contra and Oliver North were creating fodder for a new 24-hour news cycle.